The dangers and concerns of border crossing in Latin America for travelers/backpackers. Looking at managing your passport, your money, time and transport.
Crossing a border and stepping into a new country can be an exhilarating feeling, but it can also be a daunting experience dealing with language barriers, rorts, armed guards, and trying to organize your transport.
Getting Acquainted with the Backpackers’ Bible, the Passport
The backpackers’ bible is the passport; giving travelers access to border countries, where in stark contrast, locals may never have access to their neighboring countries, because they are too poor to afford a passport.
Immigration stamps are not just a backpackers’ collector item. Every time you cross a border, check to see if you have received a stamp in your passport, otherwise you might find yourself in a bit of trouble later.
You do not want to travel three hours from the Costa Rican border, only for the police to board your bus and see that you are missing a stamp and then send you back to the border check point.
(An exception to the stamp rule is the agreement between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which permits citizens such as from Australia, Canada, Europe and the US, to travel through this region with one entry stamp for three months.)
Always keep documentation immigration officials give you, because they may wish to see documents again when you are exiting the country.
Have you checked the validity of your passport? Countries often require that you have a passport that is at least valid for six months.
Visas – never forget to check country requirements. You need to check with consulates or check on Project Visa, a great website providing global visa requirements for all nationalities.
Money Gets You to Where You Want to Be in Latin America
Spare yourself the minimum US$20, should you have to pay a border crossing tariff (which may or may not be legally obliged for you to pay.)
Never rely on an automatic cash machines being at border crossings, because there will likely be none.
A bribe may be necessary in some places, should you discover that you have something in your position that you should not have.
Or, perhaps you have overstayed your 30 day tourist visa in Peru by mistake and so you will need to pay some cash for each day overstayed.
Do not dispute unadvertised tariffs, because the same rule of law may not apply here as in your own country.
Locals engaging in street currency exchanges will enable you an opportunity to off-load unwanted currency.
However, vendors are notorious for ripping tourists off, especially if you are confused about the rate of exchange. (It may help to look online on a currency converter before you travel that day, so you know what to bargain for.)
Forget travelers cheques. They are useless. US dollars are always handy, but be aware that some countries, such as Chile, are particular about the dollar bills being crisp to perfection and may or may not take one dollar bills or quarters.
Watch out for fake currency. Sometimes, fake notes or coins are obvious, such as the picture on a coin being off center. (However, most travelers will not know that they have been duped until its too late.)
Timing and Transport at Latin American Borders
Those who have crossed the same border more than once know that sometimes crossing the same border may take one hour on one day and then five hours the next.
Some border crossings are 24 hours, but you should consult your Lonely Planet Guide or ask other backpackers before you reach the border to ensure that it will be open when you get there.
You also need to think in advance to make sure that there will be transport on the other side of the border.
In some places, such as in Central America, bus companies, such as Tica Buses and King Quality travel across borders and do all the immigration work for you.
(It is natural to freak out when your passport is taken away from you and you are told you do not need to see the immigration officer yourself, so make sure that you are aware of immigration processes.)
You can always catch a cheaper local bus to the border, go through immigration and then catch another bus from the other side, but make sure that buses will be running on the day.
Often taxis are available at border crossings. They will charge you a tourist fee where they can for their services. You can always try to barter them down.
Ask immigration officials whether they think it is fine to catch a taxis or a bus, because travelers are often robbed at gun and knife point.
If it is night time, it is advisable to stay in the nearest possible guest house or hotel. Stick with other backpackers or maybe an elderly local who you think you can trust – they will understand your plight.
Final Observations on Border Crossing in Central America and South America
Having your bag searched by an armed guard with an AK47 can be intimidating.
It is heart-breaking to feed your lunch scraps to a scrawny dog with its ribs sticking out.
It is even more difficult when you realize that you did not bring enough money to buy your next meal and you have just been traveling for six or eight hours.
Though, despite such border crossing hardships, remember that border crossing can be fascinating experience. Going from the chilled Caribbean music-blaring side of Belize, where the army guards are laying back in their singlet tops, to the army sandbag-piled Mexico border check with its army men alert at attention, is like walking into one theatrical set into the next.
Border crossing in itself is a cultural experience for the curious overland traveler and a great place to meet some interesting people and harden yourself up as a seasoned traveler.